It's On Fire

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

You know the feeling: Boston’s warm-weather season is worth the wait, but it’s also fleeting—there’s some urgency about soaking it all in. We like to maximize our outdoor time by planning a few camping trips every summer; for this family of city mice, it’s a freeing way to spend the weekend. I love the way my boys’ imaginations light up when they spend a few days in the woods, and how our trips are filled with a sense of purpose, from setting up the tent and kitchen to starting and maintaining a fire.

If I had to make a pie chart of what I most look forward to on a camping trip, the campfire would take up most of the pie (followed by drinking coffee outside in the morning). I’d also include swimming, hiking, biking, canoeing and general lounging in the sun. But somehow those activities are even sweeter when I know they’ll be capped off by dinner cooked over open flames. (Just make sure your campground allows them and get the proper permits!)

So what’s on the menu? Campfire cooking can be so much more than hot dogs and marshmallows, although it doesn’t have to be—my kids would be happy if that’s all they ate. Certain foods—like casserole—aren’t ideal for camping. But with just a little forethought and advance prep, along with height-of-the-season local ingredients, so many memorable meals can be cooked over live fire.

That said, spread out your efforts: If you’re making an ambitious dinner, plan for a simple breakfast the next day. You don’t want to spend too much time fussing over the fire and the food when there are fireflies to chase and campfire stories to tell.

Consider what can be done ahead of time. Can vegetables be chopped up and pre-seasoned? Can meat be marinated? How about pulling together some flavor-boosting sauces—like pesto, compound butter or salsa verde—to pack into the cooler and add during cooking? Knocking out some prep in your home kitchen means less work at the campsite—you’ll be pleased with yourself if you do.

To cut down on schlepping, keep tools to a minimum. I usually pack a grill grate to place over the coals and a cast-iron skillet, maybe a lid for the skillet if I’m really thinking big. Then I’ll throw in a sturdy potholder, roll of foil, one all-purpose knife, a cutting board, set of tongs and a long-handled spoon. If I can’t make a meal with those tools, it’s not happening. If we need a surface to serve food family-style, we’ll use the cutting board or pack a melamine platter. A few cloth dishtowels, a roll of paper towel and a small bottle of biodegradable dish soap help immensely with cleanup. Be sure to bring a few plastic bags for your trash and recycling, too.

Next up: the flames. A cooking fire should be smaller than a bonfire, with zones for direct and indirect heat, and an area where you can work and balance any equipment. If you’ve grilled on charcoal before, it’s similar—let the wood burn down to glowing coals, then shove half of them over to one side of the fire pit to create two heat zones. The main difference I’ve found is that wood doesn’t burn as evenly as charcoal, so you just need to pay close attention to make sure things don’t get too toasty. Have a supply of medium-sized logs on hand to feed the fire (on one side of the pit) without letting it grow too large.

What I love about cooking over fire is that you’re required to be super-responsive. If the fire is flagging, you find the right size piece of wood and revive it. You identify and respond to hot spots so you don’t torch your food. And since you carried in all your supplies, the meals are stripped to essentials. How much flavor can you draw from a handful of ingredients and a lot of smoky heat? It’s fun to find out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of these recipes can be cooked on a regular charcoal grill, but cooking times will vary. Use your best judgment and check food often to avoid burning, especially
the corn and peaches. And if you’re cooking with live fire at a campsite, be sure to follow the site’s regulations and safely extinguish your campfire when you’re done cooking.

LEIGH BELANGER is the food editor at Culture magazine. Her second book, My Kitchen Chalkboard, about streamlining dinnertime for busy families, will be released this coming fall. She lives in Jamaica Plain.